The God of the Bible is aniconic,1 meaning never to be painted, sculpted or drawn. The second commandment forbids all idols, even images of the true God. In a world of gods and goddesses, both sculpted and drawn, the Bible pictures God with words alone.
Yet God is person, not an abstract philosophical concept. The Old Testament reveals God as person at the deepest level, using God’s personal name. Indeed, later tradition, through respect and fear, refused to pronounce God’s name, reading simply “Lord”, so that we no longer know how people pronounced the consonants yhwh. The best guess is “Yahweh”.
The name of the not-to-be-pictured-God even had abbreviations “Yah” and “Yahu” (a nickname?), in the exclamation “Halleluia”2 (“Praise Yah!”) and in names like “Elijah” (Eli Yahu in Hebrew). In a previous generation, an Old Testament scholar would say, “His personhood… is involuntarily thought of in terms of human personality… not the spiritual nature of God.”3
The people of Canaan and every other ancient near Eastern culture, except that portrayed in the Bible, depicted gods and goddesses with statues based on human and animal forms. People thought of them as either male or female. Only the Bible’s aniconic God could avoid being of one sex or the other.
Biblical history shows that Israel’s folk religion was seldom as pure as biblical law demanded. At “high places” across Palestine and even in Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, Jews worshipped the Lord alongside Asherah poles representing a goddess. Popular religion often confused the real God, the Lord, Yahweh, with the Canaanite god, Ba‘al (whose name means “lord” or “master”). Yet archaeologists have found no proof of Yahweh in pictorial form. (Some people claim that one picture shows Yahweh, and his wife! The drawing is on an ostracon4 from Kuntillet Ajrud, an Israelite fortress in Sinai occupied early in the monarchic period). The text speaking of Yahweh and “his Asherah”, has with it three stick figures, two presumed male and female, and a seated (female?) figure playing a lyre. The text reads, “I bless you by yhwh and his ashera”. Yhwh is God’s name and Ashera could be the goddess. If this is so, and if the stick figures represent the text, though they are crude beside a beautifully written text, then here is an Israelite picture of God. That this is unique, and from a distant outpost, at least shows how strongly Israelites prohibited carved images!5
The Bible wanted people to imagine God in words. In the Old Testament, word-pictures about God refer to mothers, fathers, other humans, animals (including lions and mother bears) as well as inanimate things like a rock or fortress. Psalm 131 is a short but delightful example of motherly language.
- 1. Lord, my heart is not proud,
nor my eyes haughty;
I’m not concerned with things
too great and difficult for me.
2. But I’ve calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul with me is like a weaned child.
3. Israel, hope in the Lord
now and forever.
Verse 2 poses problems for translators and I have followed NRSV and NIV6 . The picture is a “weaned” (the passive of gamal) child. Compared with the more usual picture of a child feeding at the breast, later the common motherly image of relating to God, this picture suggests a less demanding (even more mature) relationship, the weaned child who still depends on a parent but not on mother’s milk. In other Ancient cultures divine beings were represented by sculptures, such gods or goddesses in human form must be either male or female. Biblical writing, by contrast, shows a human clinging to God in a way that does not rely on a parent being either male or female. Why? The aniconic God is not limited by belonging exclusively to one sex or the other.
- Aniconic, comes from the Greek word “ikon” an image or picture with a prefix meaning ‘not’, so not-to-be-depicted. The Jewish and Muslim religions have obeyed this commandment strictly, Christianity has often understood it as forbidding images of other gods! [↩]
- The form “alleluia” is a version for Latin speakers, the Hebrew transcribes as hallelu Yah, “hallelu” being a plural imperative form of the verb “praise”. [↩]
- Eichrodt (1961) 211. [↩]
- An ostracon was a piece of broken pottery. Since writing materials like leather or later papyrus were expensive, these fragments became writing surfaces for all less important occasions. [↩]
- See e.g. the review article Freedman (1987) 241-249. [↩]
- But compare e.g. Dahood (1970) 238ff.. [↩]